Over a month has passed since the first tourists landed in Sri Lanka following the outbreak of the Covid-19 virus, and as of Wednesday (27), the country has received over 1,700 tourists. With these arrival numbers and inquiries being made by international tourists, local tourism stakeholders are predicting a positive future for the country’s tourism industry in the months to come.
Tourists first started returning to the island on 28 December 2020, when a flight carrying 185 tourists from Ukraine landed at the Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport (MRIA) for the first time since March 2020, for a pilot project initiated by Sri Lanka Tourism to attract visitors. Following 11 more similar flights, the country fully opened its airports for tourists on 21 January for all its tourism markets except the UK, due to their higher number of cases and deadlier variant of the virus.
Speaking to The Sunday Morning, the Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Bureau (SLTPB) stated that out of the 1,700 tourists that came to Sri Lanka, 60 came following the complete opening of the airport. While only 1,700 arrived in the country, the initial aim of the pilot project was to accommodate around 5,000 Russian and Ukrainian tourists to generate $ 10 million in tourism revenue to Sri Lanka, with hotels offering an all-inclusive package for $ 100 a day. These tourists were expected to each spend $ 1,500 during their stay in the country.
Speaking to us earlier, Airport and Aviation Services (Sri Lanka) (Pvt.) Ltd. Director Shehan Sumanasekara said that the tourist arrivals will be limited to 2,500 per day, considering the PCR test capacity, the availability of hotels and tour guides, and restrictions at the country’s airports.
Predictions of stakeholders
The SLTPB stated that, as of now, they are unable to predict any expectations for 2021 due to the unstable environment both in Sri Lanka and its potential tourism markets. However, they expect a gradual increase of tourists towards the end of 2021, having seen the interests generated from countries such as the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Germany, and India.
Speaking to us, Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority (SLTDA) Director General Dhammika Wijayasinghe agreed with the SLTPB, and explained that while they cannot predict anything until everything is normalised, there have been inquiries from the European, US, and Indian markets.
“We cannot predict anything, even if the vaccine comes here, it will not go back to our pre-Covid numbers until the situation is normalised. We have seen other countries like Thailand follow Sri Lanka’s example and decide to fully reopen for their borders as well.”
She also explained that while the Government has put a cap of 2,500 arrivals per day, she does not think that the arrivals will fill that limit anytime soon.
Currently, Sri Lanka has listed 52 hotels as level one hotels, according to a list released on 14 January by the SLTDA. These accommodation providers have been audited by the local tourism board and been certified as “safe and secure” for their compliance with the Covid-19 Health Protocols and the Tourism Operational Guidelines.
These hotels have also registered with The Hotels Association of Sri Lanka (THASL), which has welcomed the Government’s decision to reopen the country.
Speaking to The Sunday Morning about the sector, THASL President Sanath Ukwatte stated that they have seen a gradual increase in arrivals since the reopening and foresee a higher growth of arrivals in the months to come. Altogether the industry is expected to bring down 500,000 tourists by the end of the year, with earnings of up to $ 1 billion.
“Judging by the inquiries and future bookings that we get, we expect tourists to mainly come from India and Europe. In general, tourists used to stay six to seven days on average before the Easter attacks, but now we expect the European tourists to stay longer than 14 days.”
He added that compared to other destinations that have also opened its borders, Sri Lanka is doing positively due to the current protocols in place.
At the time of speaking, Ukwatte noted: “We have countries like Dubai that keep its borders open with no proper health protocols for the tourists entering the country. These same countries are currently facing a much stronger outbreak than we are. Therefore, we are thankful to the Government for introducing these protocols and the industry for adopting them.”
However, on 27 January, Dubai’s Supreme Committee of Crisis and Disaster Management announced updates to their travel protocols for inbound passengers effective from today (31) onwards. The Dubai Government stated that any UAE citizens arriving in the country will have to take PCR tests on arrival, while UAE residents, Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) citizens, and other visitors are required to take PCR tests 72 hours prior to travelling.
Speaking for the local inbound tour operators, former Sri Lanka Association of Inbound Tour Operators (SLAITO) President Mahen Kariyawasam also stated that they expect to see a gradual increase in interest and arrivals once Sri Lanka’s tourism markets begin to fare better. He explained that the current booking status of the inbound tour operators is not doing great due to the impact Covid has had on European markets.
However, he expressed concerns over the payments the tourists have to make for the PCR test and the Covid insurance. He stated that the tourist board is currently asking the tourists to pay for both PCR and insurance in US dollars, which will incur an additional cost of $ 18.
Tourists need to pay $ 12 for a month’s cover of a $ 50,000 insurance offered by People’s Insurance PLC and must also pre-purchase PCR tests depending on the length of their stay, both of which are mandatory requirements for the visa process. If the tourists are staying in the country for the minimum requirement of seven days, they must pay for two PCR tests, and for any stay exceeding the seven days, they must purchase three PCR tests, with each test priced at $ 40.
“We are currently talking to the SLTDA to clarify this issue, and we expect a slow increase in arrivals. But we cannot make a proper prediction until we are a few more weeks into the opening of the airports.”
Following health protocols
With the arrival of the 60 tourists from 21 January to 27 January, the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority (SLTDA) reported that they had found two positive cases of Covid-19.
SLTDA Director General Dhammika Wijayasinghe told The Sunday Morning that the two patients were sent to the Nawaloka Covid Intermediate Care Centre following their positive screening.
A set of guidelines released by Sri Lanka Tourism together with the Health Ministry stated that in the event of a positive case among the tourists visiting the country, the level one “safe and secure”-certified hotel, in consultation with the hotel doctor/local health authorities, will admit the patient into a private hospital approved by the Ministry of Health. The tourist’s Covid-19 insurance cover will reimburse hospital charges including the ambulance transfer fees up to $ 50,000 for a month.
Furthermore, there will be an appointed medical officer in each of the “safe and secure”-certified hotels and in the event of exposure, the guest will be kept under quarantine in an isolated area in the same hotel, under the strict supervision and administration of the hotel doctor and local health authorities.
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